The Healing Power of Gardens
During the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of people around the globe turned to gardening to help them cope. These gardens helped people stay fit, positive, and nourished. Longtime gardener and MY contributor Alan Ray wanted to dig a little deeper into the psychology of gardening, so he tapped wellness expert Seth J. Gillihan for some answers.
Throughout time, gardens have held a special place for us. The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Adam and Eve honeymooned in a garden, and the stunning 100-year-old Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island is still regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world. Gardens have a trifecta effect on us. They can touch us physically, mentally, and spiritually. They can even help heal us.
A Cornucopia of Good Things
Just being outdoors again after a long, cold winter is good for the body, mind, and soul with its warm, vitamin D-infused sunshine and the sweet songs of happy little birds — uplifting. But by the time spring returns, the body could use a little exercise to work out the stiffness and loosen up those winterized muscles. Working in a garden is an excellent way to do that.
On a deeper level, our mind and spirit experience a makeover, too, as the doldrums of winter are replaced with the joy of envisioning, creating, and executing our garden plans. All these activities lend themselves to a feeling of purpose and well-being. Let’s explore what other seeds a garden can sow within us.
The garden harvest marks the happy culmination of the fruits of your labor. The final act before the curtain drops on the growing season. But as gardeners across the world know, a garden yields so much more than merely a magical harvest.
While working in a garden, secret rewards are slowly revealed to us between the sewing and the reaping, two acts that simply designate a beginning and an end. The time spent between those events is where another magic happens.
Admittedly, the first couple days of garden prepping can be a little rough on the body. Those sleepy muscles of winter don’t always want to wake up too quickly, but always do. A few days of bending, squatting, and digging, and that stiffness is replaced with a more fluid movement. Which segues nicely to the point of this article — the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits that manifest themselves through gardening. It’s rather cosmic stuff and proven to be true. Let’s start with the physical perks. I’m sure your own experience will verify what I say is true.
Gardening is like a full-body workout. At first, muscles you forgot were there start aching. But then, it gets better. Carrying bags of soil strengthens our back, arms, and legs. Digging, hoeing, and raking tightens our core muscles and gives the shoulders and hands a good workout. Rolling a wheelbarrow, pulling a mulch-laden wagon, or even lifting potted plants increases muscle strength in our arms and lower back. All these activities increase stamina, improve our cardiovascular system, strengthen our overall physique, and render us happily tired at the end of the day.
Popping a good sweat while soaking up some sunshine makes your body feel better and you feel better about your body. Physically working in the garden also helps to relieve stress and allows us to decompress naturally.
The Doctor Is In
The physical values of gardening are obvious but for the mental and spiritual dimensions, we’re going to have to dig a little deeper.
To learn about those qualities, I reached out to wellness guru Seth J. Gillihan, PhD., author, international lecturer, and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in mental and spiritual wellness. I tracked him down after reading an article he penned in Psychology Today about how a garden mirrors life and can teach us, and even heal us, in indefinable ways.
The good doctor was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the unexpected and salubrious side effects of gardening. I was to learn how gardening played an indispensable role in helping him heal from a difficult and lingering illness.
Read also: Accessible Gardening for All
Maximum Yield: What are some clinically proven benefits for the mind that arise from gardening?
Seth Gillihan: Gardening is really a mind-body-spirit activity. Being outdoors has well-known effects on mood, and physical activity is good for all kinds of things, like lowering anxiety and improving sleep. It’s also a great way to get out of our heads and the constant stories we tell ourselves that contribute to worry and rumination and focus our awareness on all the stimuli in the garden.
MY: How much time can one spend in a garden before beginning to feel better?
SG: It can really start from the moment we step into the garden. Just the act of entering the garden can start to quiet the nervous system, putting us into parasympathetic activity which turns down the stress response. Personally, I benefit at times just from looking out my second-floor window at the garden below, and feel my breath deepen and my shoulders relax.
MY: Do the good feelings remain when the gardening season ends? Winter can be a time for depressive feelings.
SG: Winter can be a challenging time as we put the garden to bed and say goodbye to all the green and the productivity. But it’s also a good reminder of the seasons that all of us pass through, and that life follows death. Life, in fact, is built on death, if we think of the decay of compost piles and the magic that compost works in our garden beds. So, gardens can remind us that it’s normal to experience cycles and ups and downs.
MY: How did gardening help you through your challenging illness? And did the beneficial effects last?
SG: I was dealing with a lot of bewildering symptoms that eventually led to a pretty deep depression, and I knew I needed to get more engaged in activities I enjoyed. So, I built a fairly extensive backyard garden. It really helped bring me back to life — constructing the wooden beds, learning about starting seedlings, planning the layout of the garden. I never felt more content than when I was gardening, and it gave me a great reason to spend hours outside every day. I’m still feeling those beneficial effects, now in the second year of this garden. Gardens are also great for connecting with other people, like when we shared spring kale with friends during the pandemic because they were having a hard time finding green vegetables their young kids would eat. The kids loved the kale leaves roasted with olive oil into kale chips.
The Last Word
Gardens are indeed magical places that bring forth life, support life, and give back to us in mysterious, yet, tangible ways. They improve the way we connect with life and, by proxy, each other. In addition to its bounty, a garden, with its natural beauty, can heal, inspire, uplift, and stir our emotions. So much so, philosopher and author Khalil Gibran (The Prophet) was compelled to write, “Sadness is a wall between two gardens.”
When we truly connect with our garden, regardless of its dimensions or type, seeds are planted within us that take root, grow, and yield a world of healthy dividends. So much so, I am compelled to write, “Gardens...I dig 'em.” Not as poetic as Gibran, but a nice double entendre.